Learning to Belly Dance ~ Choosing the Right Teacher

I have been teaching for more than 25 years, but I will always be a student too.  I feel the best teachers are always learning new things, perfecting their craft and challenging themselves and their students.  Belly dance has so much to offer and styles to learn and specialties to focus on that it could take you a lifetime to know everything there is to know about this dance.


Classic Cabaret vs. Tribal/Fusion

Beginning with the ancient roots and culture of the dance, each country it comes from has its own flavor and style of movement, instruments, and costuming.  Egyptian is different from Moroccan and Turkish and Tunisian, but they also share a lot of similarities.

A teacher of classic belly dance is usually teaching an Egyptian style or Orientale as was my teacher in 1990.  Many teachers of the classic styles will also know some country folk dances and share a few specific steps, instruments and costume stylings from the middle eastern countries.

The American influence of many different tribal and improv styles to hip hop and dubstep fusion have added to the choices and confusion of what belly dance is and looks like.  The choices are not that straight forward anymore and it helps to know the differences before you choose your class.

In general, the best distinction is between Cabaret and Tribal/Fusion.  Cabaret is what most people think of when picturing a belly dancer.  The classic Hollywood belly dancer with beads, coins, sheer gauzy skirts and finger cymbals.  Tribal and Fusion dancers tend to wear darker and earth tones, fringe and tassels, pants and full gypsy skirts, big clunky jewelry, feathers and turbans.  Of course, fusion also means that all these elements can be mixed together.  I have heard a new word for this called Tribaret!

Making a Choice

First of all, what brings you to a belly dance class?  Are you looking for a new dance skill, just exercise, just something to do?  Was it the music, costumes, a friend brought you?  Any or all of these will determine the kind of class and teacher you are looking for.  Of course, the area you live in will also impact your choice depending on what is offered that is convenient to you.

Every teacher has something to offer.  Each has a different perspective, style, and personality.  All these can factor in how much you will enjoy the class and stick with it.  I have always told my students if you have the time and money to take every belly dance class you can.  When I was a new student, I went to 3 different belly dance classes.  They each were completely different and I learned very specific techniques from each one.

Don’t let your age (or gender) stop you!  As tribal/fusion has made its way across the country and the world at large, the belly dance has been crossing more age and gender barriers than ever before.  Older women, including myself now, have been embracing the tribal dance as a comfortable community and sisterhood activity.  It is usually taught and performed in a group or ‘tribe’.  This aspect alone can be what gives a dancer the nerve to perform with the feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ rather than being  a solo dancer.

The costuming is more forgiving and generally more body covering than with Cabaret.  Many dancers wear full skirts, vests, are covered with jewelry and sometimes turbans.  Most of it stretches or ties and is less constricted by weight fluctuations like fitted snaps and hooks on the flashy Cabaret costumes.

Exercise vs. Technique

Just because it’s called a dance class doesn’t mean you have to perform.  If you just want the exercise, I think this dance is an excellent choice for anybody to find a new way to love their body and enjoy moving it.  Because the technique of belly dance is based on isolated movement, it is such a good total body workout!  It’s generally low or no impact and its natural movement that can strengthen, tone, and aid flexibilty.  Look for classes that may have a belly dance base, but may also be a little more aerobic or fitness oriented rather than dance steps.  Bellyfit or Zumba are two of these types of classes that come to mind.

If you decide on a technique class, you might also try adding a companion workout class like Yoga, Pilates, or QiGong.  I find these to be good cross training classes to counter stretch any repetitive drilling that I do in dance class.  When I went to my first yoga class after I had been teaching for several years already, I found that I had been breathing incorrectly.  Who knew?  Once I started breathing correctly deep into my diaphragm, versus just shallow lung breathing, it changed everything about my dance and especially teaching it.  It aids in better posture, but more than that the full extension and contraction of my movements were enhanced and deeper.  I started seeing my body change right before my eyes as my diaphragm muscles became stronger!

Now What?

So how do you find one and where do you go? 

Again, this question has a lot to do with the availability in your area.  First, check with local Parks and Recreation, Y’s, and Community Colleges.  Are there dance studios or fitness and yoga studios near by?  Sometimes those places also offer belly dance classes.

In my little corner of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, there is a rich culture of the dance and many choices and places to find it.  Classes are in private studios as well as those public and non-profit organizations too.

Check your local eating establishments. Our area also offers many venues with a chance to see the dance performed live.  One of the longest standing shows locally is at the Old World Deli in Corvallis.  They have had weekly and monthly belly dance shows since the 1980’s!  Here in Salem, we have danced in many coffee shops and restaurants over the last 25 years.  Portland also has a very large community of dancers of all styles.  This city has many ethnic restaurants, such as Moroccan and Greek faire and other rather strange, out of the ordinary places to see the dance performed.

Local spring and summer festivals might also offer this type of entertainment. 

Ren Faires, Pirate Festivals and cultural events such as we have here in Salem with World Beat every June.

Watching a performing belly dancer will give you an idea of what you like (or not) about the dance and then ask her about classes.  Maybe she teaches or you can find out where she learned.  Just note that not all who perform are good teachers and not all that teach are great performers.  I would rather teach than perform myself.  I love teaching, but I have anxiety about performing and have to do a lot of mental prep to put myself out there.

Here is another resource to see if there are local teachers in your area.  She may not have listed herself here, but it’s another good place to look.
Also watch for belly dance festivals, competitions, and retreats.  Quite often these events will offer workshops and specialty classes.  If you want a more intensive training class for subjects like sword dancing, veil, zils, drums solos, stage presence and even costuming designs and creation.

If you are still not able to find anything locally or just want to add more to what is offered, check out on-line classes or videos.  There are several courses you can register for on-line versus free videos.  Datura is a highly rated on-line course and an example of quality content.

Be judgemental.  The teacher should have and give basic knowledge of safe posture, body alignment and proper breathing.  She should be able to adapt and offer alternative movement to anyone who has personal limitations or disabilities.  Beware of free youtube videos and some commercial dvd’s.  Not all are quality and from a trained or certified instructor.


The Teacher in Me     <———-(Check out my article here)

Obviously, if you’re here on this website and you’ve gotten this far, you know how much I love this dance.  I live and breathe it.  I love sharing it and teaching it.  It is and will always be my fitness for life!

Everybody needs to find a physical activity the keeps them moving, happy, and healthy.  Whether you are in to sports, hiking, cycling, dancing, or . . . – Be passionate about it and love your body and take care of yourself!


Please feel free to ask questions, offer comments or feedback.

I would love to hear from you!

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